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Iraqi Former Trade Minister Arrested

Former Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany

Former Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Police on May 30 detained Iraq's former trade minister in connection with graft allegations involving food rations, ordering a plane in which he was flying to Dubai to turn back, witnesses and officials said.

An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for former Trade Minister Abdul Falah al-Sudany on May 30, but he had already boarded a plane to Dubai, parliament's anti-graft watchdog said.

A passenger traveling on the same plane as Sudany said it was turned around about half an hour into the flight.

"The captain told us we had to go back to Baghdad because of congestion at Dubai airport," passenger Abdul-Muhsin Salem said, adding that about 250 other travelers were on board.

"On arrival, he [the minister] was taken by two plain clothes security officers from the plane in Baghdad airport. They were very polite. He wasn't handcuffed or anything."

An airport official, who declined to be named, said he saw Sudany's plane land back on the runway and border guards walk up to it and escort him to the airport's VIP room.

A Reuters reporter had earlier seen Sudany at Baghdad airport. His bodyguards denied he was going anywhere.

The head of Iraq's Integrity Commission in parliament, Sabah al-Saedi, said earlier in the day that a court had issued an arrest warrant for Sudany and that he had called Baghdad airport to order that the former minister's plane be recalled.

"There should be no protection for the corrupt from any party, whether it's the judicial or monitoring authorities, the executive or political parties, as Iraq's money is the property of Iraqis, not the property of a party or government or parliament," he told journalists.

Corruption Scandal

Sudany resigned this month over a corruption scandal relating to Iraq's public food ration program, one of the world's biggest.

The scandal, in which millions of dollars meant to buy food imports were embezzled or taken in kickbacks by officials in Iraq's Grain Board and in the ministry, has already led to the arrest of one of Sudany's brothers and the flight of another.

The warrant accuses the minister of squandering public funds and abusing his authority.

The ministry has denied the graft accusations and blamed them on disgruntled employees or political opponents.

The ministry buys hundreds of thousands of tons a year of sugar, lentils, grains, and other food and basic household goods to supply a national ration program.

Iraq's farming sector has been hit by drought and under-investment, and Iraq has become one of the world's leading importers of rice and wheat.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to crack down on endemic graft, a top concern of Iraqis before parliamentary elections next January. Maliki, who is close to Sudany, criticized a raid on the Trade Ministry last month ordered by the integrity commission.